All exercise is not created equal. The guy casually strolling for his morning 1 mile walk is not the same as someone following a scientifically designed resistance and aerobic training protocol. Yes, they are both exercise, and both can elicit positive changes to both health and body composition. However, not every type of exercise is going to be “optimal training”.
When looking at optimal training, I’m talking about getting the best bang for your buck and achieving all of the positive results of increased physical activity in the most efficient manner. For example, why burn 100 calories walking for a LONG time when you can bang that out in a quick HIIT session? That is obviously an oversimplified example, but the idea should resonate.
The Exercise Intensity Continuum – The Key To Optimal Training
This is something I have came up with to create a visual aspect to this whole idea of optimal training. It is based on data but it is not absolute – meaning intensities are relative to the participant and some of these can definitely be rearranged around spectrum. However, you will quickly see the point that the graphic is trying to make.
Lets look a little more in depth at each of these places on the continuum.
NEAT, Active Rest, Active Lifestyle
NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, is the proper way to say “staying active”. It’s not hitting the gym or actively planning an exercise session. Instead, it is just getting active in your everyday life. Something that gets you off the couch and gets you moving. Something as simple as yard work, gardening, household chores, or anything that involves you physically moving and exerting at least some sort of effort can be considered NEAT. If you follow a weight training plan this is probably referred to as Active Rest.
By itself, for short periods of time, NEAT isn’t doing much to boost metabolism, burn calories, or create fatigue. However, NEAT has a cumulative effect that exercise doesn’t have. For one, you can perform NEAT-like activities for hours on end. Try doing that with any type of formal exercise, even walking, and tell me how it goes! The more intense the exercise is, the shorter duration it should be. So, once you expend your energy on your more efficient exercise routines, you can build upon on the positive effects with more NEAT. It can actually be a big factor in weight management . This helps to add that little bit more to a complete resistance and cardio plan, like a cherry on top of the perfect ice cream sundae!
Low Intensity Cardio Or Resistance Training, Not Combined
This is the situation that people say they are active and exercise regularly but they aren’t doing enough to optimize their health and results. Usually this involves the gym newbie that only lifts weights. However, they are sporadic, utilize rest periods between sets that are way too long as they take 100 selfies, and don’t do any cardio because it’s not good for their gains…On the other hand, you have the women who still believes that lifting weights makes women turn into men on steroids, which couldn’t be further from the truth. So, they tend to do some walking, light jogging, or lifting the pretty pink and purple 2s and 3s for no intensity whatsoever. Maybe they attend a Zumba class and sloppily go through the motions because they aren’t accustomed to dancing.
Low intensity cardio or low intensity resistance training by itself just won’t cut it. If you plan an achieving optimal health and body composition results efficiently, you will need to do more than walk for 45 minutes every day or hit the weights for an hour and only do 100 reps. You can easily replace the low intensity cardio for some more efficient high intensity cardio that gets the same, or better, results in way less time . Same goes for the resistance training: you can swap out that low intensity work for some efficient, higher intensity weight training and get better results.
Combined Resistance & Cardio Training, Not Optimally Implemented
This is the cardio bunny or the gym junkie bro.
The cardio bunny hits the cardio and hits it hard. They know the ins and outs of LISS, HIIT, and everything in between. However, their resistance training regimen is a little lackluster.
The gym junkie bro likes to hit the weights hard and prove that he is the alpha at the dumbbell rack. However, you won’t catch him doing much endurance work, whether it’s with resistance or on a cardio machine. Instead, they like to lift heavy for a few reps and/or hit the bro-bodybuilding 8-12 rep range. However, this plan usually involves a lot of unnecessary rest time between sets that could be optimized with a better program.
Again, this place on the spectrum will provide better results than a solo, low-intensity cardio or resistance program. It’s just not optimal training for efficiency and overall health.
Combined Resistance & Cardio Training, Optimally Implemented
There are health and body composition benefits of cardio that you don’t get with traditional resistance training, and the same goes the other way around . To achieve optimal health, fitness, and body composition, you’ll need the perfectly balanced plan involving cardio work and resistance training.
We have different muscle fibers in our’ bodies and they are fatigued in different ways. Total fitness isn’t achieved if you skip out on training one, or more, of those types of fibers. Training each type has specific benefits that are crucial to an optimal training plan. In short, you should be working with different rep ranges and intensities of weight, in relation to your one rep max. Strength work, strength-endurance work, and muscular endurance work all have their place in the optimal plan. That’s a lot of volume to handle though, which becomes inefficient when you have to add in cardio work!
Enter Density Training – the solution to making workouts more efficient and training multiple modalities and once!
One way to utilize Density Training is using Jump Sets. This is a great technique for strength work to cut workouts in half. Instead of hitting 1 set of 5 reps and waiting 3 minutes between sets, you can use that rest time to hit another set of 5 reps on a non-competing movement.
A great example is a set of bench press, rest 1 minute, a set of squats, rest 1 minute, and repeat for the total amount of prescribed sets. Each movement and muscle group still get about 3 minutes of rest between sets, which is pretty much what you need for optimal strength training. But, you aren’t wasting those 3 minutes. Instead, you are hitting a different movement and actually getting some cardio work in too. It doesn’t seem like it should, but try this out, you will be breathing hard! Not only does this show similar strength gains as traditional strength work, it also increases fat loss !
So, we made strength work more efficient. Now, lets tackle strength-endurance. Push, pull, and legs is a typical split for a traditional routine. We are going to use that split in a Tri-Set. It’ll be even better if you hit push, then legs, and finally pull, since Push and Pull movements sometimes involve muscles from the opposite mechanics as stabilizers, which will fatigue them a bit. Hit them all in the range of 6-12, or whatever range you want to work with in the strength-endurance spectrum.
A good example is a set of military press, lunges, and pull ups. None of these moves are competing but are going to get your cardio going, since this Tri-Set will probably take more than a minute. The responses to this type of training are similar to regular training with more rest time, but the time to complete the exercises is much lower .
Lastly, we want to hit the muscular endurance range. Hitting 15+ reps on movements is already going to hit your cardio a little bit. Instead of hitting 15 and then resting, we are going to use the same principles as the previous two modalities and pair non-competing exercises and perform them back to back with no rest between any of the sets until you finish the prescribed amount of sets. Even better, you can just set a timer and go off until you hear the buzzer. Cardio and muscular endurance are hit!
One study shows that combining cardio work and strength work at about 50% of the 1RM increase strength and cardio . While this isn’t specific to our situation per-SE, it’s easy to see that my set up can elicit the same results. Just make sure to pick a weight that you aren’t failing when you hit your rep range. You should have a couple left in the tank after every set. You just need to build up that nice lactic acid burn.
Note – If your cardio is lacking, you will know it and be limited by that until it catches up!
The last thing to hit is cardio work. We’ve already hit a lot of it! Remember, cardiovascular exercise is anything that can increase your heart rate to the cardio zone and increase oxygen consumption. This was easily accomplished with those 3 modalities trained earlier. I like to add under 10 minute of high intensity cardio work at the end of the session. You can use HIIT principles, Tabatas, AMRAPs, of whatever you need to get that heart pumping and lungs burning!
This sounds like a lot, and it is in terms of volume. However, once you get accustomed to this style of workout, you aren’t in the gym for more than 1 hour, maximum! Efficient, compared to the endless hours of separating all this work to traditional style routines with lots of unnecessary rest.
Combined Resistance & Cardio Training, Too Much Of Either Aspect
Too much of a good thing? Yes, that’s real ! You’ll see someone doing either too much cardio or too much resistance training, with the other being right at the perfect volume. Sometimes you’ll see someone who is dieting down add way too much cardio but their weight training plan is still on point. Sometimes, people will up their weight training volume to try and boost results, but it becomes The Law Of Diminishing Returns. All that extra work might not be worth it!
Combined Resistance & Cardio Training, Too Much Of Everything
Over-training might be dramatized on the internet. It’s not something that’s easy to do, but it can be done   . I’ve found there are also levels of over-training too. Sometimes, you just have too much work and actually see declining results, even if you feel good doing it. Sometimes, it’s just wasting your time in the gym and cutting into your recovery time, which is essentially when all the results are actually produced. Sometimes your nutrition can make over-training much easier. A calorie restriction can lower your training thresholds a lot. Anyone who has dieted can attest to this.
Simply put, don’t overdo it. Just find the sweet spot for you!
Designing an optimal plan isn’t the same for everybody. It depends on your nutrition, lifestyle, goals, and much more when figuring out the optimal training plan to get you to peak health and your goal body composition. Check out this quick little sample workout I threw together to give you a visual example of the optimal training plan!
Things To Consider
You will become the jack of all trades, master of none. Plenty of research shows that working on multiple modalities at once will limit your progress in all of them. That means you won’t be a pro powerlifter, elite sprinter, or top marathon runner with this program. What it will do is get you healthy, train the entirety of your fitness, and get you the body you want with the proper accompanying nutrition plan! Specializing in something will allow you to master it. However, for the average person, mastering something on the fitness spectrum isn’t needed at all!
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